Three more project publications!

Standardising EnglishJust out: Standardising English: Norms and Margins in the History of the English Language, ed. by Linda Pillière, Wilfred Andrieu, Valérie Kerfelec and Diana Lewis (2018), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Carmen Ebner, Concepts of correctness and acceptability in British English: Exploring attitudes of lay people, 213-233
  • Viktorija Kostadinova, Correcting English: Josephine Turck Baker (1873-1942) and the early American usage guide tradition, 171-190
  • Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, The grammatical margins of class, 193-212

Congratulations, editors, and special thanks for organising the wonderful conference that inspired these papers, Linda!

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Dialect or simply illiterate?

Ilse Stolte needs to write blogposts for my course Non-Standard English (and prescriptivism) as well. Here is the first one, and one with a request to our readers to fill in a survey on the acceptability of two stigmatised language feautures.

As a lover of British literature, TV, and film, I have read and seen my share of Cockney stereotypes. Sometimes, the story does not even have to be set in or near London for characters to be given the well-known Cockney features. If a character is supposed to be working class and/or uneducated, they swallow their Hs, replace their Ts with glottal stops, and, of course, “don’t need no education”, as Pink Floyd would say.

Especially the last feature – multiple negation – seems to be highly stigmatised and is seen as “a stock example of uneducated speech” (Howard, 1993: 133-134). I actually find this quite surprising, since throughout the history of English, double negation has been used extensively and it never seemed to be a problem. Double negatives can be found in the works of authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. More importantly, it is generally assumed to be one of the most common features in British dialects (Cheshire et al. 1993: 75).

For all this, most authors of usage guides do not go easy on them. Simon Heffer (2010), for instance, calls them “offences against logic” and “the product of illiteracy and stupidity” (201: 57). Even the ones that do not fully forbid the use of double negatives, Robert Baker (1770), for instance, says that not and no can be used with neither and nor “not with an ill grace” (1770: 112-113). However, in the same section, he calls the use of these words together “wrong” and essentially not “the correct Way of speaking”.

So this is why I decided to bring in another common feature, namely demonstrative them. Looking at the usage guides in the HUGE database, there are far fewer entries for demonstrative them than there are for multiple negation: only five compared to 33. The language used is also less harsh and negative. For example, in the Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1999), demonstrative them is simply labelled “non-standard or dialectal” (1999: 570). However, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2000), this feature is described as “dialectal or illiterate” (2000: 226-227), which reflects a rather strong condemnation.

The differences between the number of entries and the language used in two entries made me wonder about the status of both features in the eyes of native speakers of British English, so I decided to have a survey to find out, though I am also curious to hear the opinions of speakers of other varieties of English. So I would be really grateful if you could help me find out by filling in the survey, which you’ll find here. Many thanks for your time!


Baker, Robert. 1770. Reflections on the English Language. London: John Bell.

Chesire, Jenny; Edwards, Viv & Whittle, Pamela. 1993. Non-Standard English and             dialect levelling. In Real English: The Grammar of English Dialects in the British Isles, edited by James Milroy & Lesley Milroy. Harlow: Longman Group Uk. 53-96.

Fowler, Henry Watson & Burchfield, Robert W. 1999. Pocket Fowler’s Modern             English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fowler, Henry Watson & Burchfield, Robert W. 2000. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heffer, Simon. 2010. Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write… and Why it             Matters. London: Random House.

Howard, Godfrey. 1993. The Good English Guide. London: Macmillan.

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How do the Dutch feel about non-standard features of English?

Here is Michèle Huisman’s first blogpost, and she too is doing a survey for her paper in the course Non-standard English which I’m teaching. So please help her collect data for her upcoming presentation!

In 2017, The Netherlands came first in the English Profiency Index, followed by two Scandinavian countries (Denmark and Norway)  and Singapore. The Index suggests that Dutch people are considered to be highly proficient speakers of English. One of the explanations for this high could be the use of subtitles for English films and television series rather than dubbing the dialogues, as is done in many other countries. As the Reddit map shows, movies and series are only dubbed for children here, whereas in countries such as Germany and France everything is dubbed.

But the Dutch also come in contact with English as a result of globalisation. As mentioned in Allison Edwards’ book English in the Netherlands (2016): “[It is] the forces of globalisation that have seen English spread ever further and become entrenched in yet more societies, including those where it has traditionally been considered a foreign (as opposed to a second) language. Thanks to new communication technologies and global digital media, English has left almost no stone unturned on the world map” (2016: 1).

A lot of research has been done on the position of the English language in The Netherlands, because it is clear that this position is shifting from being a foreign language to becoming the second language in the Low Countries. As Gerritsen et al. mention in their article on the current status of English in The Netherlands: it “is not only a foreign language or international language, but also serves functions’ in various social, cultural, commercial, and educational settings” (2016: 458). It is true that English is taught in school settings in this country, but also due to globalization virtually everyone encounters English on a daily basis  through the social media, American movies and series, YouTube, commercial breaks and streaming services such as Netflix.

All this has made me wonder whether people in the Low Countries are aware of the existence of a distinction between Standard English and non-standard varities of English in terms of language use. What are their attitudes towards English usage problems, such as whether or not it is ok to use a split infinitive, whether they should prefer it is I over me (or not!) and whether a form like between you and I is acceptable? Do the Dutch even care about such distinctions?

To find out, I set up a survey, which I hope you will fill in so that I will have data on this question to report on for my course presentation in a few weeks’ time. I would be very grateful if you could help me with my research!


Edwards, Alison. 2016. English in the Netherlands. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Gerritsen, M., Frank van Meurs, Brigitte Planken and Hubert Korzilius. 2016. A Reconsideration of the Status of English in the Netherlands within the Kachruvian hree Circles Model. World Englishes 35, 2. 457–474.

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A centenary: The Elements of Style

Putting the final touches (I hope!) to my book on usage guides and usage problems,  I suddenly realised that William Strunk‘s famous Elements of Style is a hundred years old this year. Will anyone, publisher or critic or otherwise, pay attention to this fact? Do let us know!

I own a few copies of Strunk and White, the revised version of the book published 41 years later, but looking for an image to go with this blogpost and also because I was curious to see what the very first edition looked like, I came across a website of someone who has been collecting different copies of The Elements of Style – my man entirely! Great display, and very interesting description of the collection. I’m very much impressed and wish …

But the last blogpost on this site dates from May 2009, so I guess we’ll never know if the writer ever did obtain a copy of the book’s very first edition (his earliest copy is of the 1919 edition). Does anyone have any further information, also about whether anything is planned to commemorate this interesting centenary?

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I come, I seen, I chased him up the street

And here is Amos van Baalen’s first blogpost. And if you are a native speaker of Australian or British English, do take the time to contribute to his research by filling in the survey below. It won’t take a lot of time, and Amos needs the data for his final paper.

Recently, I came across a video of an Australian explaining how he chased down a drunk driver who drove his car into a shop. Aside from the fact that the man who was interviewed had a strong local accent, there was something else that immediately caught my attention: his use of come and seen as past tense verb forms (in the first fifteen seconds of the video).

This usage came as somewhat of a surprise to me: being half Australian, and having lived in The Netherlands my whole life, I have obviously not had a great deal of exposure to spoken Australian English. However, I have never heard any of my Australian relatives use these particular simple past forms. So in the context of the MA course ‘Non-standard English’ at Leiden University (for which I am writing this blog post), I thought it would be interesting to find out whether simple past come and seen are considered usage problems in Australian English.

For this purpose, I consulted The Cambridge guide to Australian English usage (Peters 2007). It turns out that Peters (2007) does not refer to these non-standard forms: in her entry titled “irregular verbs” (pp. 427-430), she merely mentions the standard forms of both verbs and she does not discuss them under the last subheading of the entry, “Unstable irregular verbs” (nor are they discussed separately, as in the case of the verb drink, for example). It would seem, therefore, that past tense come and seen are not felt to be usage problems in Australian English. This is not to say that these forms have not been documented for this variety of English. For example, one study by Eisikovits (1987) has shown that past tense come and seen occur very frequently in the speech of Inner-Sydney teenagers.

I also thought it would be interesting to see what British and American usage guides had to say on these usages. For this purpose, I consulted the HUGE database, in which I looked for entries that deal with have went (since this problem also subsumes the opposite usage, i.e. using the standard past participle in the simple past) and I did a full-text search for come.

The results returned two relevant entries, both of which were from American usage guides (note: I was unable to access one of the usage guides in the original results, so there may be a third relevant entry). I then repeated the search for seen. This time there were five relevant entries (one per usage guide) and all five usage guides again dealt with American English.

The two queries yielded two entries that mentioned both simple past come and seen and one of these entries actually provided some interesting historical sociolinguistic information on these usages. This entry can be found in A grammatical corrector; or, Vocabulary of the common errors of speech, written by Seth T. Hurd and published in 1847. In the entry that deals with simple past come, seen and similar usages (e.g. simple past done, but also opposite usages, such as saw for seen), Hurd (1847) mentions that they occur “in several of the Middle, and to some extent in the Southern States”, and that these particular verb forms “are as common, not only with the illiterate, but with many of the educated in those regions, as are the most familiar terms in the language” (p. 65).

It would seem, then, that the usage of come and seen in the simple past has traditionally been an American usage problem, since there were no relevant results from British usage guides. Once again, it should be noted that these forms do occur in British English. In fact, past tense come and seen have been described for varieties as diverse as Scottish English, Irish English, Tyneside English and South-eastern English (see the relevant chapters in Real English (1993), eds. Milroy and Milroy).

Nevertheless, I am still left wondering about the usage and acceptability of these forms in Australian and British English. If you are a speaker of either of these varieties, I would like to ask you to fill in my survey. Thank you very much in advance for taking part!


Eisikovits, Edina. 1987. “Variation in the lexical verb in Inner-Sydney English”. Australian Journal of Linguistics 7: pp. 1-24.

Hurd, Seth T. 1847. A grammatical corrector; or, Vocabulary of the common errors of speech. Philadelphia: E.H. Butler & Co.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy (eds.). 1993. Real English: The grammar of English dialects in the British Isles. London/New York: Longman.

Peters, Pam. 2007. The Cambridge guide to Australian English usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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Great to have a copy!

The HUGE database contains only a selection of usage guides. On the one hand, because there are so many of them, but on the other because it wasn’t always possible to lay our hands on a copy that could be scanned and included. So imagine my immense pleasure when Maaike, one of my students in the course Early Modern Everyday English, came up to me earlier this week and showed me  a copy of a usage guide called Deskbook of Correct English: A Dictionary of Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar and Usage.  And, as she said, it was mine to keep! She knew about our project from the History of the Language course I taught last semester, and has now made her own singular contribution to it.

The book was published in 1957, and Maaike had come across it in her grandma’s book case. The authors are Michael West and P.F. Kimber. Thanks to the information on the back of the title-page we now know that West held an MA as well as a PhD degree from Oxford and that he had previously published two dictionaries as well as “numerous textbooks for the teaching of English abroad and at home”. A linguist, in other words. And Kimber is described as a long-standing “press-corrector on the staff of The Times“. Both are therefore language professionals, and they would have scored high on the scale of usage guide writers’ authority which I developed for my book on the genre. (Nearly finished now.)

Another interesting feature about the book is the foreword by C.L. Wrenn (1895-1969) who I remember from my early days in the history of English as an Anglo-Saxonist. Wrenn admits to having had doubts about the book (something we frequently encounter among linguists), but adding that he “quickly came to the conclusion that – whether we like it or not – we all do in fact understand very well the meaning and purpose of a ‘Deskbook of Correct English'”. But he had another reason for complying with what appears to have been West’s request for a preface: “We have worked together in places as distant as Oxford and India; and never have I seen in one man so effective a combination of a quick mind and what my grandmother used to call a ‘practical headpiece'”. That, then, makes two grandmothers in this story. Thank you, Maaike, what a wonderful addition to our project’s collection!

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Well I never! My … was …

I was reading the UK Autocar this week-end, and came across this:

“My ghast is well and truly flabbered.”

This stopped me in my tracks on two counts: (i) I could never say it, let alone write it; and (ii) where did that h in ghast come from? I couldn’t say it because what I would say is My flabber is/was well and truly gasted. Obviously. But what if my native-speaker intuition was at odds with actual usage?

A search for flabbergasted in the OED Online takes me to flabbergast, as verb and noun, with the only spelling options being flaba- and flaber-, along with the derivative flabbergastation. There is no separate entry for flabber, but there are noun, verb and adjective entries for gast, largely with the meaning of “fright” or “fear”. The only entry for ghast was as an archaic or poetic form of ghastly.

A search at on its GloWbE (Global Web-Based English) corpus of 1.9 billion words (from 2012–2013) yields my, ghasted and gasted, as the top three collocates of flabber, and flabber, my and was as the top three collocates of gasted; flabber and my (and the exclamation mark) were the top three collocates for ghasted. However, even the most frequent collocate occurred only three times in this huge corpus.

So, I thought I would do a Google search on the four possible strings based on my flabber was gasted, which yielded the following:

my flabber was gasted       =  325

my flabber was ghasted     =  109

                                    T          =  434

my gast was flabbered       =  184

my ghast was flabbered     =  850

                                    T          = 1034

(I’m assuming that the duplication of results that you get in a Google search would apply to all four listings.)

So we have a 2.4:1 ratio in favour of the nominal being gast/ghast, and a 1.9:1 ratio in favour of the spelling ghast.

So, do we simply have here more variants than I am familiar with, or are they, all, simply, errors? And where does this leave the standing of my native-speaker intuitions?

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